...and then there was One
Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, September 2, 2018
“And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan”
EVER SINCE there were fingers and toes, one of our chiefest joys as little children was to count them and find out there are five on one hand, and five on the other. The advanced student of fingers and toes finds out that five on the one hand adds to the five on the other to make ten. And after mastering the art of counting up from one to ten, we get to graduate-level studies in the science of the countdown.
It was a real gift to my generation that we were children of the space age. Children today are deprived of the pleasure of shouting out “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – Blast off!” Every child in America felt the power of T minus 10 seconds, as much as the throbbing roar of Saturn boosters exploding as derricks and cranes in a massive support structure fell away and a giant, towering missile rose in the Florida skies followed by a mountain of smoke.
Numbers are magical, and because they are symbols, codes that mean more than just digits. Ten is a magical number because I have ten of these (fingers). Ask any three-year-old how old she is, and three fingers shoot up as the exact number of the times she’s orbited the Sun. In fact she is a NASA explorer, and she knows that very fraction of her orbit exceeding the three: the point where her space travel stands at this very moment.
Before we delved into space, another countdown was popular, known as Ten Little Injuns. (1868, Septimus Winner) It was an old minstrel number, chanted by children for generations. “Ten little Injuns standin' in a line, One toddled home and then there were nine; Nine little Injuns swingin' on a gate, One tumbled off and then there were eight…” It counted down to the more lethal verses: “Three little Injuns out on a canoe, One tumbled overboard and then there were two. Two little Injuns foolin' with a gun, One shot t'other and then there was one; One little Injun livin' all alone, He got married and then there were none.”
Numbers mean something. They may be oranges in a bowl, or Apostles at dinner with Jesus, three crosses on a hill, four Gospel accounts, or the number of God’s in Israel. Numbers can mean fightin’ words. Deny the Trinity and you are not a Christian. Biblical numbers are charged with meaning. One is God’s number: there is One and only One God. His number means unity, as St. Paul writes there is only “One Lord, One Baptism, One Father of us all.” It also means beginning, as the first day when light was created. One is sovereignty, for only One God rules the world. Two may mean union and it may mean division, as with Jacob and Esau. Two witnesses are required to establish a legal fact. Christ sent His disciples out by two. Three is the number of Persons in the Trinity, so it means divine completeness and perfection, and relationship—a society begins at three. Christ rested in the tomb three days, and then rose.
Then four is the number of creation, the world, and God’s creative works: four points on the compass, four winds, four great land masses, four seasons, four types of soil for the Sower. Five is the number of grace, God’s goodness. Moses’ books number five. Six is the day of man’s creation, and symbolizes the fall. 66 is idolatry, and 666 is the number of Revelation’s beast, the incarnation of satanic evil.
Seven is a really magic number. Why do we number the days of a week at 7? The moon phases come in four sevens, God brings spiritual perfection in sevens, and the Holy Spirit flames in sevens. Eight is new birth, resurrection, beginning again. In a fallen world, 8 is the hoped for number. Eight persons survived the Flood. Circumcision is on the eighth day. Nine are the fruits of the Spirit, and we read them today in the Epistle: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance.
Ten comes as Law and human order, an earthly governance. Egypt suffered ten plagues, ten virgins show wisdom or foolishness, there are ten clauses in the Lord’s Prayer, and 10 commandments. 12 makes a divinely established government, as the 12 tribes or 12 apostles. And twice twelve: 24, means priesthood, as 24 elders sit before God’s throne. Forty can mean a trial, test or probationary period—as forty years wandering or forty days’ fast. Fifty is Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Ghost.
When Jesus used numbers, people listened and they enjoyed the numeric codes He used, often played one against another to show, by contrast, the good or the evil way.
In a real encounter, a living parable, Jesus spoke with a band of ten lepers on a day when He traveled south to Jerusalem from Galilee. Lepers stood aside from healthy people, draped in rags, often festooned with small bells to warn your children not to come near, and cried out “unclean!” They were feared to be contagious, and more than that, they were cursed with a dreaded skin disease. It was a judgment on them that this befell their lives, or so people said. No one touched them. Jesus did, but that’s another story.
Jesus’ fame went abroad, and the people came in droves to hear Him, ask favors, and be healed by Him. The ten lepers came crying out to Jesus, “Master, have mercy on us.” Jesus saw them, and as His perception was always keen, He set a test for them along with the grace of His healing. Hebrew law, the spiritual side of health and sickness, put the Jewish priests in charge of examining people’s bodies for signs of leprosy, to certify them either unclean or clean. A question, I imagine, lay beneath the test Jesus set forward here: Do the priests make you clean, or does God? And if God, then why come to me? If the priests, why not cry to them? It’s really very simple: what are you doing, asking for healing from me except that you know where God is on earth, and God is in me?
And He wanted to show the Jews, His fellow countrymen, how enslaved they were to rules, to rabbinical tradition, and laws that govern well enough when God is in heaven and we have to get along here on earth. But when the Kingdom of God has come, what need have we for such conventions? He’s right here. Ask Him. Go to Him. Lay aside your routine and seek out the one who is God on earth today.
The people had two minds, and aren’t we double minded today? You know the religious principles, yet you check your horoscope, just to be sure. Some people say thousands of rosaries, but when they’re in real trouble, they call on Madam Ruby. Trust God with souls, but drugs for the body. It’s not either-or, I hasten to add, but our duplicity is in turning away from God when it really counts. Jesus walked among us, yet after we were healed, we return to our old lives, unhealed in spirit, not truly whole.
“Go show yourselves to the priests,” He said, and the habituated Jews turned away and sought out a priest. Walking away, no doubt complaining that the Master hadn’t healed them, and why was it He sent them to the priests? one of them looked down at his poor hand and it wasn’t leprous anymore. He tore the bandages back and cried out, “Ahh! Look! My skin! My hand! Wait a minute.” He tore off the rags that hid his face and neck. “Look at me! What do you see?” They screamed. His face was clear, without a blemish. They all began to examine their own lesions. One by one, they found no sign of leprosy. Jumping up and down, hugging each other, looking on each other’s skin for further proof of their healing, they knew for certain they had been touched by a miracle. Did they know it was God? Did they know where God had been? The irony of that very moment was that the Jews turned to Judaism, and the Samaritan turned to God.
Ten lepers sought out the healing of Jesus, for they knew by reputation that miracles were done by Him daily. Religiously, the nine Hebrews had their shame and degradation and certain death suddenly removed, and the only thought that held them at that point was to get their certificates of health. The priests could examine them and they could return to families, loved ones, friends that were not allowed to touch them while they were diseased. Ten lepers stumbled off to seek a priest, but just nine of them continued after God touched and healed them. Then there was one.
One. He was a Samaritan. His was the religion most scorned by Jews. He would have no entrée with a priest. He would not examine him, nor certify him, for he was a foreigner, a mongrel. The leprosy of his racial difference to the Jews could not be healed, not even by Jesus. His former mates would shun him now; now that they were Jews again in good standing. He realized that the bond of illness that had joined him to them was now severed by health. It was a loss, but what he had gained was everything. The Man in the square had healed him. What if He were still there? He must go back and thank Him.
With a shout, the man returned and at the top of his voice he glorified God. He saw Jesus and ran to him, stripping off the old diseased rags and showing Jesus and the fearful spectators his clear skin. He fell at Jesus’ feet, kissed the ends of His toes, and sobbed while panting out his thanks. “Thank you, thank you Master!” The first shock that the crowd slowly recovered from gave way to the second: the man’s clothing showed them he was a Samaritan.
Jesus always seized a teachable moment, and asked them, “Were there not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? They were Jews, as you all are, and they believe in God. Why didn’t they return to give thanks? Is the only one who recognizes the Kingdom of God on earth this one you call ‘stranger’? Look! A miracle just came to ten men, ten lepers are healed. And now there is one, just one who remembers where the miracle happened.”
Turning to the one, the only one thankful enough to return, Jesus said, “Rise up, my friend. You can go on your way, your new way, in peace. Your faith—that you just showed so completely—has made you complete. Not just cleansed, but whole—nothing lacking, nothing alien, nothing wrong with you at all.”
Ten, nine, eight, seven… the human governments and religious systems can all count, and they count on this: that we will consider them to be in charge and fully able to take care of us. And it’s untrue. They were never meant for that. God alone can heal you, sometimes by the aid of doctors, sometimes through the prayers of your priest. But it’s God. Thank God. Give God the glory for every blessing you have, and you will be whole. Whole means One. Being One, and existing in the One, you are whole.